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Authors: Colin Dexter

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BOOK: Last Seen Wearing
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   She said: 'I wish we could be naughty together, don't you?'
   God, yes. Of course he did. He was breathing quickly and suddenly the back of his mouth was very dry. The loudspeaker announced that the 8.35 shortly arriving at Platform One was for Reading and Paddington only; passengers for . . . But he wasn't listening. All he had to do was to admit how nice it would have been, smile a sweet smile and walk through the buffet door, only some three or four yards away, and out on to Platform One. That was all. And again and again in later months and years he was bitterly to reproach himself for not having done precisely that.
   'But where could we go?' He said it almost involuntarily. The pass at Thermopylae was abandoned and the Persian army was already streaming through.

CHAPTER ONE

Beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death's pale flag is not advanced there.
(Shakespeare,
Romeo and Juliet,
Act V)
T
HREE AND A HALF
years later two men were seated together in an office.
   'You've got the files. Quite a lot of stuff to go on there.'
   'But he didn't get very far, did he?' Morse sounded cynical about the whole proposition.
   'Perhaps there wasn't very far to go.'
   'You mean she just hopped it and—that was that'
   'Perhaps.'
   'But what do you want me to do? Ainley couldn't find her, could he?'
   Chief Superintendent Strange made no immediate answer. He looked past Morse to the neatly docketed rows of red and green box-files packed tighdy along the shelves.
   'No,' he said finally. 'No, he didn't find her.'
   'And he was on the case right from the start.'
   'Right from the start,' repeated Strange.
   'And he got nowhere.' Strange said nothing. 'He wasn't a fool, was he?' persisted Morse. What the hell did it matter anyway? A girl leaves home and she's never seen again. So what? Hundreds of girls leave home. Most of them write back to their parents before long—at least as soon as the glamour rubs off and the money has trickled away. Some of them don't come home. Agreed. Some of them never do; and for the lonely waiters the nagging heartache returns with the coming of each new day. No. A few of them never come home . . . Never.
   Strange interrupted his gloomy thoughts. 'You'll take it on?'
   'Look, if Ainley . . .'
   'No.
You
look!' snapped Strange. 'Ainley was a bloody sight better policeman than you'll ever be. In fact I'm asking you to take on this case precisely because you're
not
a very good policeman. You're too airy-fairy. You're too . . . I don't know.'
   But Morse knew what he meant. In a way he ought to have been pleased. Perhaps he was pleased. But two years ago. Two whole years! 'The case is cold now, sir—you must know that. People forget. Some people need to forget. Two years is a long time.'
   'Two years, three months and two days,' corrected Strange. Morse rested his chin on his left hand and rubbed the index finger slowly along the side of his nose. His grey eyes stared through the open window and on to the concrete surface of the enclosed yard. Small tufts of grass were sprouting here and there. Amazing. Grass growing through concrete. How on earth? Good place to hide a body—under concrete. All you'd need to do . . . 'She's dead,' said Morse abruptly.
   Strange looked up at him. 'What on earth makes you say that?'
   'I don't know. But if you don't find a girl after all that time—well, I should guess she's dead. It's hard enough hiding a dead body, but it's a hell of a sight harder hiding a living one. I mean, a living one gets up and walks around and meets other people, doesn't it? No. My guess is she's dead.'
   'That's what Ainley thought.'
   'And you agreed with him?'
   Strange hesitated a moment, then nodded. 'Yes, I agreed with him.'
   'He was really treating this as a murder inquiry, then?'
   'Not officially, no. He was treating it for what it was—a missing-person inquiry.'
   'And unofficially?'
   Again Strange hesitated. 'Ainley came to see me about this case several times. He was, let's say, uneasy about it. There were certain aspects of it that made him very . . . very worried.'
   Surreptitiously Morse looked at his watch. Ten past five. He had a ticket for the visiting English National Opera performance of
Die Walküre
starting at half-past six at the New Theatre.
   'It's ten past five,' said Strange, and Morse felt like a young schoolboy caught yawning as the teacher was talking to him . . .School. Yes, Valerie Taylor had been a schoolgirl—he'd read about the case. Seventeen and a bit. Good looker, by all accounts. Eyes on the big city, like as not. Excitement, sex, drugs, prostitution, crime, and then the gutter. And finally remorse. We all felt remorse in the end. And then? For the first time since he had been sitting in Strange's office Morse felt his brain becoming engaged. What
had
happened to Valerie Taylor?
   He heard Strange speaking again, as if in answer to his thoughts.
   'At the end Ainley was beginning to get the feeling that she'd never left Kidlington at all.'
   Morse looked up sharply. 'Now I wonder why he should think that?' He spoke the words slowly, and he felt his nerve-endings tingling. It was the old familiar sensation. For a while he even forgot
Die Walküre.
  
'As
I told you, Ainley was worried about the case.'
   'You know why?'
   'You've got the files.'
   Murder? That was more up Morse's alley. When Strange had first introduced the matter he thought he was being invited to undertake one of those thankless, inconclusive, interminable, needle-in-a-haystack searches: panders, pimps and prostitutes, shady rackets and shady racketeers, grimy streets and one-night cheap hotels in London, Liverpool, Birmingham. Ugh! Procedure. Check. Recheck. Blank. Start again.
Ad infinitum.
But now he began to brighten visibly. And, anyway, Strange would have his way in the end, whatever happened. Just a minute, though. Why now? Why Friday, 12 September—two years, three months and two days (wasn't it?), after Valerie Taylor had left home to return to afternoon school? He frowned. 'Something's turned up, I suppose.'
   Strange nodded. 'Yes.'
   That was better news. Watch out you miserable sinner, whoever you are, who did poor Valerie in! He'd ask for Sergeant Lewis again. He liked Lewis.
   'And I'm sure,' continued Strange, 'that you're the right man for the job.'
   'Nice of you to say so.'
   Strange stood up. 'You didn't seem all that pleased a few minutes ago.'
   'To tell you the truth, sir, I thought you were going to give me one of those miserable missing-person cases.'
   'And that's exactly what I am going to do.' Strange's voice had acquired a sudden hard authority. 'And I'm not
asking you
to do it—I'm
telling you.'
   'But you said . . .'
  
'You
said. I didn't. Ainley was wrong. He was wrong because
Valerie Taylor is very much alive.'
He walked over to a filing cabinet, unlocked it, took out a small rectangular sheet of cheap writing paper, clipped to an equally cheap brown envelope, and handed both to Morse. 'You can touch it all right—no fingerprints. She's written home at last.'
   Morse looked down miserably at the three short lines of drab, uncultured scrawl:
Dear Mum and Dad,
   Just to let you know I'm alright so don't worry. Sorry I've not written before, but I'm alright. Love Valerie.'
There was no address on the letter.
   Morse slipped the envelope from the clip. It was postmarked Tuesday, 2 September, London, EC4.

CHAPTER TWO

We'll get excited with Ring seat (10).
(Clue from a Ximenes crossword puzzle)
O
N THE LEFT-HAND
side sat a man of vast proportions, who had come in with only a couple of minutes to spare. He had wheezed his way slowly along Row J like a very heavy vehicle negotiating a very narrow bridge, mumbling a series of breathless 'thank yous' as each of the seated patrons blocking his progress arose and pressed hard back against the tilted seats. When he had finally deposited his bulk in the seat next to Morse, the sweat stood out on his massive brow, and he panted awhile like a stranded whale.
   On the other side sat a demure, bespectacled young lady in a long purple dress, holding a bulky opera score upon her knee. Morse had nodded a polite 'good evening' when he took his seat, but only momentarily had the lips creased before reassuming their wonted, thin frigidity. Mona Lisa with the guts ache, thought Morse. He had been in more exhilarating company.
   But there was the magnificent opera to relish once again. He thought of the supremely beautiful love duet in Act 1, and he hoped that this evening's Siegmund would be able to cope adequately with that noble tenor passage—one of the most beautiful (and demanding) in all grand opera. The conductor strode along the orchestra pit, mounted the rostrum, and suavely received the plaudits of the audience. The lights were dimmed, and Morse settled back in his seat with delicious anticipation. The coughing gradually sputtered to a halt and the conductor raised his baton.
Die Walküre
was under way.
After only two minutes, Morse was conscious of some distracting movement on his right, and a quick glance revealed that the bespectacled Mona Lisa had extricated a torch from somewhere about her person and was playing the light laterally along the orchestrated score. The pages crinkled and crackled as she turned them, and for some reason the winking of the flashlight reminded Morse of a revolving lighthouse. Forget it. She would probably pack it up as soon as the curtain went up. Still, it was a little annoying. And it was hot in the New Theatre. He wondered if he should take his jacket off, and almost immediately became aware that one other member of the audience had already come to a firm decision on the same point. The mountain on his left began to quiver, and very soon Morse was a helpless observer as the fat man set about removing his jacket, which he effected with infinitely more difficulty than an ageing Houdini would have experienced in escaping from a straitjacket. Amid mounting shushes and clicking of tongues the fat man finally brought his monumental toils to a successful climax and rose ponderously to remove the offending garment from beneath him. The seat twanged noisily against the back rest, was restored to its horizontal position, and groaned heavily as it sank once more beneath the mighty load. More shushes, more clickings—and finally a blissful suspension of hostilities in Row J, disturbed only for Morse's sensitive soul by the lighthouse flashings of the Lady with the Lamp. Wagnerites were a funny lot!
   Morse closed his eyes and the well-known chords at last engulfed him. Exquisite . . .
   For a second Morse thought that the dig in his left rib betokened a vital communication, but the gigantic frame beside him was merely fighting to free his handkerchief from the vast recesses of his trouser pocket. In the ensuing struggle the flap of Morse's own jacket managed to get itself entrapped, and his feeble efforts to free himself from the entanglement were greeted by a bleak and barren glare from Florence Nightingale.
   By the end of Act 1, Morse's morale was at a low ebb. Siegmund had clearly developed a croaking throat, Sieglinde was sweating profusely, and a young philistine immediately behind him was regularly rustling a packet of sweets. During the first interval he retreated to the bar, ordered a whisky, and another. The bell sounded for the start of Act 2, and he ordered a third. And the young girl who had been seated behind Morse's shoulders during Act 1 had a gloriously unimpeded view of Act 2; and of Act 3, by which time her second bag of Maltesers had joined the first in a crumpled heap upon the floor.
   The truth was that Morse could never have surrendered himself quite freely to unadulterated enjoyment that night, however propitious the circumstances might have been. At every other minute his mind was reverting to his earlier interview with Strange—and then to Ainley. Above all to Chief Inspector Ainley. He had not known him at all well, really. Quiet sort of fellow. Friendly enough, without ever being a friend. A loner. Not, as Morse remembered him, a particularly interesting man at all. Restrained, cautious, legalistic. Married, but no family. And now he would never have a family, for Ainley was dead. According to the eye-witness it was largely his own fault—pulling out to overtake and failing to notice the fast-closing Jaguar looming in the outside lane of the M40 by High Wycombe. Miraculously no one else was badly hurt. Only Ainley, and Ainley had been killed. It wasn't like Ainley, that. He must have been thinking of something else . . . He had gone to London in his own car and in his own free time, just eleven days ago. It was frightening really—the way other people went on living. Great shock—oh yes—but there were no particular friends to mourn too bitterly. Except his wife . . . Morse had met her only once, at a police concert the previous year. Quite young, much younger than he was; pretty enough, but nothing to set the heart a-beating. Irene, or something like that? Eileen? Irene, he thought.
   His whisky was finished and he looked around for the barmaid. No one. He was the only soul there, and the linen wiping-towels were draped across the beer pumps. There was little point in staying.
   He walked down the stairs and out into the warm dusking street. A huge notice in red and black capitals covered the whole of the wall outside the theatre: ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA Mon. 1 Sept - Sat. 13 Sept. He felt a slight quiver of excitement along his spine. Monday the first of September. That was the day Dick Ainley had died. And the letter? Posted on Tuesday, the second of September. Could it be? He mustn't jump to conclusions though. But why the hell not? There was no eleventh commandment against jumping to conclusions, and so he jumped. Ainley had gone to London that Monday and something must have happened there. Had he perhaps found Valerie Taylor at last? It began to look a possibility.
The very next day
she had written home—after being away for more than two years. Yet there was something wrong. The Taylor case had been shelved, not closed, of course; but Ainley was working on something else, on that bomb business, in fact. So why? So why? Hold it a minute. Ainley had gone to London on his day off. Had he . . .?
   Morse walked back into the foyer, to be informed by a uniformed flunkey that the house was sold out and that the performance was half-way through anyway. Morse thanked him and stepped into the telephone kiosk by the door.
   'I'm sorry, sir. That's for patrons only.' The flunkey was right behind him.
   'I
am
a bloody patron,' said Morse. He took from his pocket the stub for Row J 26, stuck it under the flunkey's nose and ostentatiously and noisily closed the kiosk door behind him. A large telephone directory was stuck awkwardly in the metal pigeon-hole, and Morse opened it at the As. Addeley . . . Allen . . . back a bit . . . Ainley. Only one Ainley, and in next year's directory even he would be gone. R. Ainley, 2 Wytham Close, Wolvercote.
   Would she be in? It was already a quarter to nine. Irene or Eileen or whatever she was would probably be staying with friends. Mother or sister, most likely. Should he try? But what was he dithering about? He knew he would go anyway. He noted the address and walked briskly out past the flunkey.
   'Goodnight, sir.'
   As Morse walked to his car, parked in nearby St. Giles', he regretted his childish sneer of dismissal to this friendly valediction. The flunkey was only doing his job. Just as I am, said Morse to himself, as he drove without enthusiasm due north out of Oxford towards the village of Wolvercote.
BOOK: Last Seen Wearing
11.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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